Weakened Forests More Susceptible to Infestations

By Beacon Staff

Montana is under siege. And, no, I don’t mean by a bunch of politicians and their surrogates swarming all over the state pleading for votes. I mean Montana’s forests, both public and private, are being hit extremely hard by beetle infestations. There are different types of beetles such as mountain pine and Douglas fir as well as bark beetles and we have been hit by all of them.

The epidemic is larger than us, however, and encompasses more than 20 million acres in Canada and millions more in the Western United States. A recent report stated that in Colorado and southern Wyoming almost all of the lodge pole pine will be dead in three or four years. Campgrounds are being closed by the U.S. Forest Service because of the danger to campers from dead trees. Who would want to camp in an area loaded with burned or bug-killed trees anyway?

It only takes a drive anywhere in Montana to see the devastation that is being wreaked upon our forests with dead and dying red trees. The beetles along with ever-increasing catastrophic wildfires are destroying one of the most treasured assets of this state – our forests. It is truly a shame this is happening for any number of reasons, not the least of which is damage to wildlife habitat, watersheds and the very air we breathe.

Beetles are a natural part of the forest ecology and can provide a positive role in eliminating dying trees. The problem is by lack of active management in many of our forests beetles are attacking trees that could be healthy if the stands were not so crowded and thus stressed and susceptible to bugs. There cannot be hundreds of stems per acre competing for sunlight and moisture without harm to the individual tree. A healthy forest is not unlike a healthy garden. No one I know who gardens allows the vegetables to grow in a tangled mess – they weed and thin so the remaining plants have room to grow and thrive. Trees are no different.

Unfortunately for the public forests, the damage from years of neglect has occurred and continues to grow at an alarming rate. The estimates are that Montana has lost 2.4 million trees to beetle-kill, but that figure is from 2006, two years ago. Hundreds of thousands more trees have succumbed in the past two years both from bugs and wildfire. Montana lost more than 800,000 acres to fire in 2007 and while not all of the trees on those acres died, many now are under attack by bugs because of weakened conditions.

What, if anything, can be done now that the destruction of our forests is this advanced? It is not enough to simply say nothing can be done and sit back and wait. The Helena National Forest has had public sessions inviting folks to pick up bark beetle repellant packets and to learn more about proactive approaches to be taken on private lands. The repellants, known as pheromones, are simply a short-term fix and are only about 85 percent effective, but it is a start. Frankly, many private lands are as needy as public lands and those landowners must become better stewards of the land and provide a healthier environment. The trees need nutrients and water, both of which are in short supply on lands where the trees are too thick to be healthy.

It would be a good idea for both the Forest Service and the BLM to take more steps on its lands and use repellants combined with fuel reduction, but the agencies need positive support from the general public, not appeals and litigation stopping projects that would provide healthy trees all of us could enjoy. A longer-term solution of active forest management is where all of us should be focused if we want to live in Montana for the reasons many of us do – well-paying jobs, healthy forests, and recreational opportunities such as hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing in places that inspire peace and solitude.

There are some efforts underway with members of progressive groups, agency personnel, and the timber community providing encouragement for projects on the ground that will prove beneficial for the resource. Many of us are involved in those efforts including much needed public education of what must take place on all forest land ownerships. We do hold out some hope for the future of the lands we love, but the time for action is now.

Ellen Engstedt-Simpson is executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association